Friday, May 23, 2014

The Friday Video: Lyndon B. Johnson's 'Great Society' Speech

Fifty years ago yesterday on May 22, 1964 President Lyndon Baines Johnson delivered his "Great Society" speech as a commencement address at the University of Michigan. One of the dignitaries present was Governor George Romney, the father of Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican Presidential nominee. 

Just as so many in my generation have done, I have long judged President Johnson by the disastrous Vietnam War. For me his accomplishments with civil rights legislation, his "war" against poverty became mere footnotes in the back of the book about him. Such was the result of the blinders I wore because of that ugly Indochina war. 

My friend and keen political scholar and observer, Lewis Cole, remarked in an email to me: "We know now, of course, how badly the Kennedy cabinet he kept, East Coast elites whom he was somewhat intimidated by, abused his trust in their judgment re: Viet Nam."

For the first time in my life I heard LBJ's Great Society speech yesterday after reading John de Graaf's post: That time Lyndon Johnson made a killer case against unbridled growth cross-posted on Truth Out under the title of The Greatest Modern Presidential Speech Turns 50. (The Truth Out post seems easier to read at least in Chrome and I like the title much better.) 

I have listened to the speech three times now and plan to listen to it again.

The video embedded above gives the gist of the speech. YouTube has the complete address HERE but it is really an audio track. 

LBJ was no orator. His delivery was always so dry, drawn and labored. It is easy to miss the humor in his speech because of the lack of inflection. But, trust me, the man was wry and witty.

Read the Grist post or the Truth Out post and you will learn that Johnson was way ahead of his time. His Great Society of the pursuit of happiness and the quality of life over quantity has largely been lost in modern America. Only recently has the dream begun to stir again. Vietnam, Watergate, Reagonomics, Bush, Clinton, Bush and the emphasis is still on quantity of wealth - and we know where most of that quantity is going. 

We know now where unbridled growth has led us: the brink of global climate catastrophe, urban sprawl and vanishing usable water, polluted seas, rapid die out of thousands of species of animals, a widening rift between rich and poor, an oligarchy in America rather than democracy, an American Empire blind to the indigenous peoples and the resources of their lands that they subjugate so that a can of peaches on our grocery store shelves and a gallon of gasoline can be as cheap as possible for the American consumer. Unbridled growth has led to a whole class of CEO's and Wall Street traders who can only be described as sociopathic. Banks not people have become too big (too precious) to let fail. And a whole generation of politicians have become the puppets of corporations whose power, thanks to the Supreme Court, now rivals the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity.

"The purpose of protecting the life of our nation and preserving the liberty of our citizens is to pursue the happiness of our people. Our success in that pursuit is the test of our success as a nation." - Lyndon B. Johnson

I'm listening now, Mr. President. I hear you after 50 long years.

El Paso business leaders, builders and sprawlers, TxDOTers: Hear these words now:

"[The Great Society] is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake.  . . . We have always prided ourselves on being not only America the strong and America the free, but America the beautiful. Today that beauty is in danger. The water we drink, the food we eat, the very air that we breathe, are threatened with pollution. Our parks are overcrowded, our seashores overburdened. Green fields and dense forests are disappearing.

"A few years ago we were greatly concerned about the "Ugly American." Today we must act to prevent an ugly America. For once the battle is lost, once our natural splendor is destroyed, it can never be recaptured. And once man can no longer walk with beauty or wonder at nature, his spirit will wither and his sustenance be wasted." [My emphasis]

And sprawlers, if you won't hear, El Pasoans certainly CAN.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting this. I honor LBJ for his War on Poverty, his Civil Rights legislation, his Medicare leadership. This Great Society speech is a marvel. Most of us have forgotten it, and have no idea what is meant by the phrase, "the Great Society."

    I was a college student myself when this speech was given, and I can attest that we were not focused on making as much money as we could - we did not have to, for one thing, because we could afford college - work/scholarships enabled us to leave without debt! Imagine that. The Peace Corps was a roaring success from Day One - imagine, hordes of young people heading out to work in other countries, virtually without contact with "home" in those days - no internet, rarely international telephone access...just you and your desire to help.

    I hope that the ideas in this speech get widespread coverage - and action.